Taxes levied on gambling, alcoholic beverages, cigarettes and addicting drugs have been called sin taxes. Distribution, smuggling and sale had been controlled by mobs and criminal gangs. Such behaviors are destructive of individuals and the public good. Arguments for legalizing and taxing them are that oversight results in less criminal involvement, less addiction and additional support for remedial social services reduces misuse. Sin taxes, it is said, support the common good — schools, teacher salaries, counseling, rehabilitation centers and programs for addicts. However, a result has been to implicate the state and its structures in encouraging, marketing, and managing related behaviors.
Those behaviors lead to addiction for many of those involved. Reasons for addiction are physiological/chemical, sociological, psychological and systemic. The results are destruction of individuals’ health, families, employment, income and general personal and communal wellbeing. Drunkenness and drug abuse lead to many robberies, rapes, automobile accidents, murders and suicides each year. Binge drinking in high schools and colleges lead to failures in school and lead downward on dark paths. People at the margins of society seem to be most affected and harmed. Blame is placed on welfare mothers who use food stamps to purchase liquor and lottery tickets.
State, federal and local taxes on a pack of cigarettes in Chicago is $7. In the United States, the average cost of two packs a week range from $600 a year to over $1,000 per year, depending up state taxes. The Indiana House passed a 50-cent cigarette tax increase this month and is now before the Senate. Ironically, laws require warnings on every pack of cigarettes that smoking is dangerous to your health. Money spent on these behaviors even by middle-class individuals hamper economic prospering. A Hindu friend noted that the vices of non-believers could support a believer’s modest lifestyle, which prohibits addictions. Imagine how much a person could save to invest for future flourishing by refraining from excessive spending on those activities.
Sin is not an appropriate legal word describing such behaviors or taxes. American laws are secular, not religious. This column is not a call to return to sin taxes or Blue Laws, which enshrined religious commitments and imposed them on everyone. Laws should be based on reason and negotiation about what is best for individuals, communities, and society. Freedom enables people act in ways very harmful to themselves and others. The challenge is balancing the need to promote welfare of individuals and society while protecting the freedoms we enjoy as Americans. Best behaviors rest on good morals, not the letter of the law.
Citizens must recognize the wide invisible net cast by wealth and profit available to the state, media and businesses. Every node in the net becomes richer through excessive use. The public does not know how much of that wealth trickles down to support the promised social goods. Politicians fund pet projects from taxes. Companies get wealthy. Media giants increase income from advertising. Large law firms manage legal aspects of the exchange. Criminal elements roam around the edges. All lack motivation to support investigative reporting that might kill the goose that lays golden eggs. True economic and social costs are hidden.
Individual citizens can do little to stem the rising tide. Perhaps, try to discover cost and benefit details. Or, explain to young people the dangers involved. Or, support effective enforcement of just laws to reduce related street crime and white-collar crime. Or, oppose the collusion of the state in turning a blind eye from detrimental social effects. Most of all, sustain moral foundations that might support healthy conduct.
Raymond Brady Williams, Crawfordsville, LaFollette Distinguished Professor in the Humanities emeritus, contributed this guest column.